Kentwell Hall, in Long Melford (Suffolk), is a perfectly preserved fifteenth-century moated manor house, open to the public. It is famous for its summer recreations of Tudor life, when hundreds of reenactors appear in costume around the grounds, engaging in everything from cookery to alchemy. In March 2017, at the kind invitation of Mr and Mrs Phillips, the owners, members of our team spent two days hunting for the Victorian rubbish dumps. The four of us (Tom, Tom, Ben and Mick) began by searching woodland to the rear of the property, beyond the moat, where the ground was lumpy and covered in nettles. A track shown on the 1880s map terminated in the middle of this wood, as though it might have been a tipping ground, and fragments of glass and china had been found here by gardeners in the past. We put in several test pits and found layers of black, white and purple ash with occasional inclusions of rubbish (such as a spoon, a pot base and parts of a Victorian beer bottle), but it soon became clear that this was a tipping ground for the dust from domestic coal fires, with only a few other artefacts finding their way in. The hardcore – i.e. bottles, crockery, bones and the like – had been buried somewhere else.
Mrs Phillips mentioned that a quantity had been found in 1976, when the moat had dried up, to the rear of the kitchens. The crockery and glassware recovered on that occasion dated up to the 1880s. Then two gardeners arrived and led us to the shrubbery, where they happened to be digging holes and planting. Out of one of the holes were coming large pieces of crockery and even an intact Below: the shrubbery with finds in trays. chemist’s bottle, so we put in a test pit right there and found a cache of glass and ceramic waste, with the occasional brick. The rubbish had been packed tightly into a squarish hole not more than 2.5 square feet and 1 foot deep. There was no ash or evidence of organic matter (e.g. bones), only the hardcore, in the form of rusted metal, ceramics and glass. It looked as if we had found at least one spot where gardeners were burying some of the hardcore. The pit contained two or three barrow-loads of material deposited in the early or mid 1890s. Among the bottles were intact and broken examples of ‘The Mexican Hair Renewer’, Bishop’s ‘Granular Citrate of Magnesia’ (for stomach upsets), a fluted sauce bottle and a large number of blacking bottles. There were also very many broken black-glass wine bottles of earlier decades, which had been stored in the cellars and re-used until they were broken. We noted the re-use of black-glass wine bottles at Brockdish Rectory (see previous blogs).
It was purely by chance that we had come upon this rubbish pit. Had the gardeners not been digging in that very spot, that very day, it would have not have been discovered. The lack of ash and organic matter meant that there were no nettles or other clues in the vegetation; nor was there any mound or depression. We therefore set about probing with two different probe rods (a needle probe, and a soil sampler), looking for indications of buried glass. This method brought to light a few possible spots, one of which produced a larger and deeper pit filled with glass, ceramics and metal waste from the 1900s.
Above left: finds from the first pit, including blacking bottles and master ink bottles, which contained Field’s ink. Above right: the contents of a rusted bucket from the second pit includes a bottle for gravy browning made with anchovies (note the red contents), a medicine bottle and beer bottle above it, and a ceramic tobacco jar lid, top.
On another occasion we returned with a metal detector and used it to identify large signals which might reveal a deposit of buried waste. This turned up a third pit, dating from the late 1890s. (The latest datable item was part of a cup commemorating Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.) This pit contained a dozen blue glass bottles from Woodward’s chemists in Nottingham, heralding the rise of a brand. It also contained a ginger beer bottle from Talbot’s in Ipswich, a French mustard jar, an American varnish bottle (Hauthaway’s gloss) and a small German bottle, showing the range of local and international products being consumed at the hall in late Victorian times.
Above left: ten Woodward’s bottles had survived intact in the ground. Above right: dating evidence!
Above left: bottles jars and crockery from the third pit (late 1890s), including blacking, ink, furniture cream, varnish, pickles, wine, medicine and Eau-de-Cologne bottles. Above left: a ginger beer bottle from Talbot’s.
Each of the three assemblages of rubbish (and a few smaller ones) had been buried in a discrete, squarish pit dug for purpose. Ash and organic matter was absent in each case. We also noted that the two pits of the 1890s contained fragments from the same sets of tableware (but not the same pieces), including a set with a patterned design in red and pink. These pits were not strictly contemporary, however, as the first contained some products that were absent from the second (e.g. The Mexican Hair Renewer), while the second contained products that were obviously favoured but absent from the first (e.g. Woodward’s and furniture cream), suggesting a shift in consumption patterns over the space of several years. We concluded that the pits were soakaways (filled with hardcore waste to aid drainage). The main dumping operation must have occurred elsewhere on the grounds.
Moving to the rear of the property, in the wooded area, where we had found the dumped ash, we began looking around for other possible sites. Using probe rods and metal detectors in the area of the compost heaps, we soon found a series of three pits, side by side, dug beneath the present heaps. These were also soakaways, with only bottles and hardcore buried in square, comparatively shallow pits (3-4 feet square and about 3 feet deep). They dated from the 1900s and contained household waste, including beer bottles, ceramic pots, and broken crockery.
Above left: pot lids for luxury products (tooth powder and cold cream from London firms) found in the soakaway beneath the compost heap. Above right: a pot lid bloater paste, photographed in the evening light.
These new pits represented more of the same, but we were still no closer to locating the spot where the bulk of household waste was carted. It was not until August 2017 that we found a possible location, with all the clues to suggest a large-scale tipping operation, in a concealed area, down a track beyond the rear of the property. That will have to await future investigation. In the meantime, we would like to thank the owners, gardeners and team at Kentwell for all their help and hospitality.
Above left: probing for rubbish dumps around the grounds; right: cutting turves and excavating pit number 1.
Above: potted salmon from pit no. 3 (late 1890s). Above: bottles, jars and pots from the compost.